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MARY LOUISE KELLY, Host:

All this week, we're exploring the challenges facing the European Union in the wake of the continent's financial crisis. That economic turmoil has forced many to rethink the ideal of a United Europe. Many European countries are looking inward these days and viewing the EU as increasingly irrelevant. Now Germany, long a champion of European integration, is acting more independently. And more of its citizens are questioning their country's leading role in the European project. NPR's Eric Westervelt reports.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Christian Gelleri buys a sandwich and a Hefeweizen at a rustic outdoor beer garden along the Inn River in the Upper Bavarian town of Stephanskirchen.

But the 40-year-old isn't paying with euros. This place accepts chiemgauer, the thriving local currency named after a region in Bavaria.

LOUISE KELLY: (German language spoken)

LOUISE KELLY: (German language spoken)

LOUISE KELLY: (German language spoken)

WESTERVELT: The alternative currency is not some gimmicky fundraiser. It may look a little like Monopoly money, but the chiemgauer is real. One chiemgauer equals one euro. It's been around for more than eight years, almost as long as the euro, the common currency now used by 16 European countries.

Gelleri is proud that more than 600 regional businesses - from drugstores to architects - now accept the micromoney.

LOUISE KELLY: The chiemgauer is connected to the region. You can't speculate with it, you can't buy stocks or options or shares with it.

WESTERVELT: You can only spend it in the area. Organizers say the currency is meant to promote a buy local mentality and is a complement to the euro.

But the fact that there are more than two dozen regional currencies like this in Germany - the most anywhere in the world - underscores the German ambivalence toward the euro.

Adoption of the euro was supposed to lead to deeper, more coherent fiscal and political union. The euro hasn't delivered on either.

And intended or not, the microcurrency trend plays into German nostalgia for the deutsche mark, which the euro replaced.

A recent poll by Germany's Ipsos Institute showed that more than half of all Germans still want a return to the deutsche mark. And some in the younger generation wonder whether any deeper European integration is really worth the effort.

Patrick Guenet was just a year old in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell and Germany began to reunite. The 22-year-old is currently completing his mandatory public service - in lieu of military service - working in a children's after-school program in Berlin.

Guenet is part of a younger generation that grew up with the perks of a united Germany and a united European Union. But these days, he looks at the recent plan to help bail out the Greek economy and questions whether the EU is really such a bonus.

LOUISE KELLY: The good things are, for example, you can travel. I love it to travel. I can eat cheese from Hungary. And the bad things are that the most of the money that we earned - and we also needed in Germany - will go to another country because they made something wrong.

WESTERVELT: Now Germany is not writing big checks to Greece - it has agreed with the IMF and eurozone states to create a nearly $1 trillion safety net in loan guarantees if needed.

But the perception here is that Germany is doing more than its share and is bailing out a country that cheated on its finances. Polls show a third of Germans want Greece kicked out of the eurozone - and Guenet is one of them.

LOUISE KELLY: The Greece people doesn't get it. They don't know what it means to save money. What will happen if we kick out them of the euro? I mean, the euro will be higher again. Then they can come back if they follow some rules. I mean, there should be some rules that they have to keep.

WESTERVELT: That feeling is widespread here and can't merely be dismissed as tabloid populism. Indeed, there's fear here that the Greek crisis has rattled the German faith in the wider European venture.

Dr. Daniela Schwarzer is with the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.

D: The whole European integration project is based on a certain level of understanding, of trust, and also of solidarity, that people feel that they are part of a larger European Union. And I would argue that we have to rebuild this now.

WESTERVELT: Rebuild, she says, with help from German policymakers and politicians, whom Schwarzer says are not doing enough to make the public case for the euro and for the European Union.

D: To make clear to the citizens, why Europe is a big advantage the way it is. Why we even have to move further with political integration in the eurozone and in the EU in general. And why falling back into nationalism and into ideas of separating single member states out of the eurozone or out of the European Union, is clearly no alternative.

LOUISE KELLY: We are in a dangerous situation within the whole EU.

WESTERVELT: Klaus Barthel is a member of the German parliament with the opposition Social Democrats.

LOUISE KELLY: In nearly every member state, we have right-wing populist tendencies, we have a stronger nationalist debate, we have euro criticism against the European Union. This is a dangerous situation within Germany, too, because more and more people say we have to pay for all the others.

WESTERVELT: Shamed by two world wars and the atrocities of the Nazi dictatorship, Germany became the post-World War II champion of European integration. For years, in Brussels, German diplomats pressed for or went along with integrationist initiatives, heavily bankrolled them and carefully repositioned national interests as European ones.

N: Germany is now more openly and independently asserting its interests, not wrapping them in the language of Europa.

Dr. Constanze Stelzenmueller with the German Marshall Fund sees it as a change in tone.

D: What you see today is, I think, a greater willingness on the part of the German government to say in public that it disagrees with the French or the English government, or with other governments, and that, in fact, it doesn't want to be the paymaster of Europe anymore.

WESTERVELT: And it can't afford to be the EU paymaster. Leftists in Germany have already taken to the streets against federal budget cuts they say unfairly target society's most vulnerable.

And many ordinary Germans see the EU as increasingly unwieldy, meddling and overly bureaucratic. Critics say the body has fallen into a pattern of crisis management and lacks strategic leadership.

Despite the EU's flaws, Stelzenmueller says all realizes that going back to 27 separate nation-states is not an option.

D: It may not be, for my generation of Germans and Europeans, the political project that saves us from going to war with each other again. Those days, I think, are over.

But we do understand that in an age of globalization, the European Union is what gives us a common voice on the international stage. It is the foundation for our prosperity, and it is what enables us to trade with the rest of world.

But in the wake of the European debt crisis, it's increasingly hard to convince Germans of those arguments - even that the EU is very relevant to their lives - beyond shorter passport lines in Europe and more options for cheese.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Berlin.

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LOUISE KELLY: Tomorrow we'll hear about the strains on the welfare state in European nations.

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